My friends and I stopped at the Suzhou Silk Factory to learn about the process of how China’s famous silk products are produced. The experience was eye-opening for somebody like me who came in knowing very little about the manufacturing process of clothing. I never would have guessed what an intricate and time-consuming operation making silk items is. It is no wonder silk is so expensive!
We began our tour with an introduction to the mulberry plant which is basically the only thing a silkworm eats as it prepares for metamorphosis. We were given the chance to walk up to a large pen full of silkworms and mulberry leaves. Our tour guide told us we could touch, feel, and hold the silkworms if we’d like. At first, I was hesitant but I did try picking up a few. They were so clingy!
The farmers continuously feed the silkworms mulberry leaves until each worm is nice and chunky. Then they are placed on long sticks that provide them with plenty of space to build a silk cocoon. Each silkworm’s cocoon is made up of one extremely long thread of continuous silk. In some cases, two silkworms may intertwine their cocoons. When this happens, the silk is used for stuffing comforters and pillowcases since untangling the two threads would be nearly impossible.
Our tour guide explained to us that silk was first discovered when an empress was sitting under a mulberry tree with a cup of tea and a silkworm cocoon fell into her cup. One of her servants reached into the cup to fish out the cocoon but ended up pulling out a long thread for several minutes. It was never-ending! They say this is how silk was discovered!
The process of how silk is made is complex but it has been made a bit easier with modern technology. Cocoons must be heated in order to kill the silkworm inside. If the worm were not killed this way, they might try escaping from their cocoons, ruining the silk thread in the process.
Cocoons are soaked in hot water so one end of the cocoon will come loose. Eight individual ends are hooked up to a spinner on an unwinding machine. They have to use eight threads because silk is 1/8th the width of human hair. The spinning machine then unwinds and twists the small threads into one large thread that is sturdier and more useful for fabric.
When two silkworms make cocoons together, their threads are tangled and can’t be used for fine fabric. Instead, the pairs are soaked and made soggy in water. Workers at the factory stretch 10 cocoons over a “U” shaped structure which allows the threads to be stretched out. Once the U-structure has 10 layers of silk, the workers proceed to stretch it over another larger U-structure expanding the silk even more. After this is done, the silk sheet is ready to be added to a comforter. Every layer of the comforter contains 100 cocoons.
Silk factory workers stretch silk sheets onto the comforters one layer at a time. Just imagine how many cocoons are in an entire comforter. Even a small sheet requires so many silkworm cocoons! The workers allowed our tour group to add 2 layers to a comforter that they were in the process of building.
Silk has so many uses. Between sheets, comforters, pillowcases, clothes, and artwork, the uses for silk are abundant. We were told that there are two effective ways of telling if something is made of true silk or not. The best option is the “burn test.” You hold a flame up to the silk. True silk will only burn precisely where the threads are heated. Synthetic fabrics do not burn as nicely. This test may be impractical for everyday use so the other option is to lay the fabric over your hand. Silk will contour with your hand’s shape while other fabrics will rest flat and rigid.
I went to a store to buy souvenirs for my family. I got my mother and grandmother silk scarves. I was going to buy myself a silk shirt while I was there but I wasn’t sure if the shirt was authentic. When I asked the lady if it was real silk, she looked offended and whipped out a lighter and burned a thread on the inside pocket of the shirt. I was totally shocked to see that they actually used the burn test! It was, in fact, real silk. I decided to only purchase the scarves though.